Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

On Friendships

The desire for friends requires a belief in their value

Food, water, shelter, sleep, and protection from harm are biological necessities humans must satisfy. But youth and adults have a remarkable ability to invent a large number of experiences they believe they must have, once the five biological needs are satisfied. Salvation, beautiful children, a large home, a Mercedes Benz, fame, respect, and many friends are high on the list of imagined prizes. What distinguishes these experiences from the biological needs is a prior belief in their value. Without this premise the pleasure of pursuing and attaining these goals would be severely diluted. A woman would feel burdened, rather than vital, if she did not believe that transforming a disturbed, adopted toddler who had suffered abuse in foster homes would constitute proof of her capabilities as a mother. This requirement for a prior commitment to the value of an activity and goal is irrelevant for the pleasure that accompanies eating warm soup by a fire when one is hungry and cold.

The recent claim by some social scientists that friendships are as necessary for health as sex, a balanced diet, and exercise is a new idea. Freud assumed that an anxious or depressed woman was probably deprived of gratifying sexual experiences. Lack of friendships has replaced sexual frustration as a reason for the same symptoms because the material advances and social changes of the past 100 years, especially in developed nations, made it possible for many adults to survive without an interdependent relationship with one or more others. As a result, the number of extremely close emotional bonds with peers was reduced. A common response to this state of affairs was a feeling of loneliness.

History’s muse changes the script for the human narrative on an unpredictable schedule. Fifteenth-century Europeans felt unsure of their salvation; 400 years later the same populations wanted more freedom of expression; contemporary groups wish for closer personal relationships. These motives are experienced as intense feelings, but their origin is traceable to societal changes, not biology. Fifteenth-century Chinese did not worry about salvation; nineteenth-century Tibetan monks did not feel deprived of freedom, and adults living in isolated villages in Hudson Bay, the Australian outback, or Patagonia do not feel they are deprived of the joys of many close friendships. They pray for good weather.

Commentators from a variety of cultural backgrounds recognized that although friendships contribute to happiness, this emotion assumes varied forms. The ancient Greeks emphasized the mutual pleasures that friends derive from the relationship. The Romans celebrated the utilitarian aspect of the bond. Friends had an obligation to help to each other when one member of the pair needed money, a letter of recommendation, or an appearance in court. Buddhism and Islam placed greater importance on the spiritual and ethical guidance friends give each other. Few commentators suggested that the absence of friends reflected a serious biological dysfunction or mental illness. Why then have some eminent social scientists and philosophers argued recently that friendships are biologically necessary?

As usual, a number of relatively independent events elevated friendships from a source of pleasure to a biological requirement. First, friends can function as therapists who alleviate another’s worries. Increased migration from rural areas to large cities generated anxiety over being a victim of a robbery, rape, or mugging. The media fed these anxieties by reminding everyone of the dangers of a terrorist attack, a dirty nuclear bomb, anthrax in the water supply, AIDS, SARS, climate change, the crass dishonesty of strangers, and even the purity of an antibiotic purchased at a local pharmacy . Television screens on September 22, 2013 were filled with pictures of bloodied bodies lying on the floor of a posh mall in Nairobi following an attack by a terrorist group from Somalia. It is easy to imagine experiencing a similar horror when one visited a favorite mall. Conversations with friends can mute these worries.

The increased number of college graduates and professionals with advanced degrees created pools of talent in some areas that were larger than the number of available jobs. Anyone with a friend in the right place had a definite advantage. Stephen Case, the founder of AOL and the 2013 commencement speaker at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, told the 6,000 graduating seniors that friends were absolutely necessary in the business world. He confessed that he would not have become a successful entrepreneur without the help of loyal friends.

Case’s argument for the utility of friendships was inconsistent with my memory of the rise of the nineteenth-century robber barons, such as Andrew Carnegie, Leland Stanford, J. P. Morgan, and Henry Ford. So I went to the library and borrowed several books containing commencement talks given many decades earlier. A day of reading revealed that Case’s theme was rare in commencement speeches given before 1960. The earlier talks emphasized the need to be independent and able to resist the opinions of friends. Ben Barres is a neuroscientist at Stanford University who became a scientist a full generation after I chose psychology. I was surprised by Barres’s advice to graduate students in the natural sciences in 2013. He told them to pick the right mentor and to award less importance to satisfying any special curiosity they wished to gratify. I used to tell my students that their most important task was to pick a question that engaged their passion. It appears that Barres thinks my advice is not adaptive in 2014. When I joined the Harvard faculty in 1964 one of every two Ph. D. biologists had a tenure track academic job. That proportion is now one out of seven. Under these new conditions graduate students do need the friendship of an older mentor and friends in the right places.

The growth of large bureaucratic institutions- high schools, universities, corporations, scientific laboratories, government agencies – contributed to the current emphasis on friends by generating feelings of isolation or, in some cases, anomie. At the same time, the contraceptive pill reduced the number of siblings and cousins who might form close relationships. The greater participation of women in the workforce meant fewer family picnics and holiday dinner parties.

Middle-class parents born after 1950 made their contribution to the enhanced feelings of isolation in their adolescent offspring by communicating their expectation of sculpting a perfect adolescent who combined high grades and diverse accomplishments with supreme self-confidence. Many of these children grew up with the illusion they were princesses or princes entitled to anything they desired and obsessed with burnishing their egos by placing their satisfactions ahead of the needs of others. It is not surprising that, as adults, they would find it easy to betray lovers, spouses, and friends if the disloyalty was necessary to gratify a personal wish. This degree of narcissism, combined with the possibility of betrayal, made it difficult for one person to commit fully to another. As a result, a feeling of loneliness pervades the current cohort.

The growing skepticism among Americans and Europeans over the traditional premise that some moral beliefs are absolutely binding rendered friends an important source of assurance that one possessed a measure of virtue. The loss of moral certainty was particularly frustrating to the young who search for a code to guide daily decisions. Then, lo and behold, Facebook, Twitter, and iPhones arrived to supply a steady source of information from peers that spelled out the ethical beliefs a network of acquaintances held. More than 90 percent of America’s adolescents exchange internet messages with peers at least once a day; about 5 percent are regarded as addicted.

These exchanges among peers shape consensus, at least within the network, on the appropriateness or impropriety of varied sexual practices, drinking, recreational drugs, loyalty to parents, usual costume, respect for teachers, importance of academic achievement, and career choices. Since most youths are likely to converse with peers who share their values, each network validates the belief system of every other member of the group. These communications serve the ethical function that Buddhists envisioned for friendships.

There is, of course, a dark side to these networks. A teenager who violates one of the group’s ethical rules is liable to be the target of a barrage of cyberbullying that generates anxiety and a feeling of isolation. Close to one third of American adolescents said they experienced cyberbullying by one or more peers during 2012. In rare cases the victims of continuous, harsh attacks are driven to suicide. Rebecca Sedwick was a bullied middle-school adolescent who one morning in September 2013 climbed the tower of an abandoned cement plant and jumped to her death. George Orwell’s dark, 1949 novel “1984” predicted surveillance by the government, not by one’s friends.

Many youth and young adults do feel lonely. This state is not an illusion. I suspect, however, that an important source of this feeling is uncertainty over the moral imperatives they ought to honor under all circumstances, in addition to the belief, which blossomed after the 1960s, that they ought to be free of all constraints on their personal desires. Friendships reduce the moral uncertainty by creating an imperative of loyalty to those in the network, although they limit personal freedom to some degree. I am suggesting that loneliness can emerge when individuals find themselves without a mission that can absorb their passion, whether a career, hobby, marriage, or role as parent. Writers, painters, composers, and scientists who enjoy their work rarely complain of being lonely, despite the fact that they are often alone. The majority of Americans, who are not in these roles, are tempted to interpret the feeling that accompanies a lack of commitment to a mission as the product of too few friends. This interpretation has become the default explanation for an uncertain mood, as sexual conflict was chosen by many Europeans as the reason for the same mood a century earlier. The feelings humans are capable of experiencing change little over time; the interpretations change regularly. Between 5 and 10 percent of the unmarried adults in most societies are quiet, introverted, and socially anxious, and have been so since childhood. Before the internet they read books, knitted, wrote, went to convents, migrated to isolated regions, or found a solitary hobby. Today‘s socially anxious introverts can use the internet to avoid direct social interactions. If Lee Harvey Oswald had been born after 1990 he might not have assassinated John Kennedy; had T. S. Eliot been born the same year he might not have become a poet.

Friendships have the important advantage of persuading each partner that he or she has accomplished something of importance. The malevolent implication of this belief is that those who are friendless have failed a critical life test. For those who are neither rich, accomplished, famous, nor highly educated the possession of many friends protects them from the corrosive shame of complete failure. The belief that one has many friends has become a way to mute feelings of incompetence, a source of support when the mind dwells too long on the threats lurking in the environment, a useful resource in getting a job or promotion, a replacement for smaller families and fewer gatherings, and a basis for an ethical code. It is not surprising, then, that social scientists made friendships as vital as vitamins and social isolation as painful as a broken ankle.

The seventeenth-century philosopher Blaise Pascal would have disagreed with the current celebration of friendships. He wrote in “Pensees," “All the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact. That they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber… to bid a man live quietly is to bid him live happily. The writer Albert Camus rephrased Pascal three centuries later: "There is no greater joy than to live alone and unknown.” History, not biology, created the premise that friendships are necessary for a satisfying and healthy life. But, as I noted, the pleasures that close friendships provide require a prior belief in their value. Pascal was not unhappy, despite the fact that he had few friends, because he had not elevated this relationship to a position of high value.

Many years ago I saw a 20 minute silent film that captures the theme of this essay. A man walking on an isolated country road trips and cannot extract a leg that that is stuck in a sinkhole. The man waves for help whenever a car passes but no one stops. After his legs, arms, and trunk have sunk deeper into the hole a passerby steals some of his clothes lying outside the hole. In the final scene, when only his head is visible, a second passerby stamps on the victim’s head and he disappears. The haunting 2007 Chinese film “ Little Moth” portrays each individual as a commodity that is bought and sold. In the final scene a crippled, eleven year old girl, sold by her father to a stranger who used her to beg for money on street corners, sits alone on a deserted pavement by a highway as dusk approaches.

The authors of these two chilling scripts did not intend to tell viewers that the man in the sinkhole or the crippled girl lacked friendships. Rather, the message was that the muse of history, in a foul mood, composed a chapter in the human narrative that deprived many of the reassuring belief that most people are loyal, kind, and honest and at least one person cares about their welfare. A skeptical view of this idealistic message, which began to grow following the disillusions generated by the first world war, explains the popular reception of T. S Eliot’s The Wasteland and James Joyce’s Ulysses. A mood of loneliness peaked following the horrors of the Second World War and the threat of an irrational nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The current preoccupation with friendships owes its vitality, in part, to the need to make a lie of the depressing possibility that each of us is alone in a callous world of uncaring narcissists.

A Japanese entrepreneur established an agency that rents relatives for attendance at weddings and funerals. The English translation of the Japanese name for the firm is “ We want to cheer you up.” A similar business in New Jersey rents friends for $24.95 an hour. These new commercial ventures invite us to drop the façade and admit that it is not very important whether the person we are hiking, drinking, dancing, or sleeping with is an old friend or a rented companion. I hope this is not true.

Close relationships with a particular other can be a source of deep pleasure. I am absolutely certain that Homer would not have had Odysseus persist against Scylla, Charybdis, and Circe in order to return to Penelope, waiting patiently for him in Ithaka, if she had been a rented wife.